Battle Creek

Battle Creek SokokuJi Buddhist Temple expands outreach through planned Community Mindfulness Center


Editor's Note: This is the final segment of our Faith in Action series, a wide range of stories that explore faith-based and faith-inspired works, the people accomplishing them, and the connections with the community they are creating. The series is supported by the Fetzer Institute.
BATTLE CREEK, MI — Battle Creek native Kyoun Sokuzan has been guiding Buddhists and teaching meditation in Southwest Michigan on and off for nearly 50 years. 

Raised in Battle Creek as Bob Brown, he chose Kyoun Sokuzan as his dharma name. Sokuzan means mountain and Kyoun means cloud.

With an unusual background that includes time in the Marines, the 83-year-old Sokuzan is the founder, Abbot, and Guiding Teacher of the SokokuJi Buddhist Temple Monastery on Anderson Court which opened at the height of the pandemic in November 2020.

John GrapIn a move to expand its offerings to the community, which currently include mindfulness, wellness, and meditation classes for those interested, including youth and the incarcerated, the monastery is building a Community Mindfulness Center on North Avenue.

Even the building materials used to construct the center will include mindfulness and intention, says Sokuzan.

Located in the same building housing Karma House Wellness Center, the 1,900-square-foot center will be open to the public with an estimated completion cost of just shy of $1 million.
A major donor contributed $200,000 of that total cost. Fundraising efforts will cover the remainder, Sokuzan says.
He is quick to point out that the buildout is about the intention, not the result.
The concept of “faith in Buddhism has no promises” illustrates his outlook, Sokuzan says.
Many different definitions, ideas, and interpretations exist of what Buddhism is. Among them is that it is a way of working with “craziness, anxiety, and intelligence of the mind," says Sokuzan. "There is no belief system in Buddhism. It is an ancient technology for working with the mind in a respectful way."
John GrapThis is the courtyard and entrance to he SokukoJi Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle Creek.Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions originating in South Asia around the 5th century B.C.E. with the awakening and subsequent teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Over the next millennia it spread across Asia and the rest of the world, according to a National Geographic article. Gautama was born into a wealthy family. He purportedly attained Nirvana (perfect enlightenment) while sitting under a fig (bodhi) tree. Thereafter, he became known as the Buddha and dedicated his life to spreading his teachings. Scholars agree that the Buddha died at some point between 410 and 370 BC.
“Buddhists believe that human life is a cycle of suffering and rebirth, but that if one achieves a state of enlightenment (nirvana), it is possible to escape this cycle forever,” according to the article.
As Sokuzan explains, “Buddhism does not require faith or belief and does not include the concept of a god.”

As a non-theistic faith, the existence of god is considered irrelevant, neither affirmed nor denied. Buddhists also have no concept of sin, but instead consider the cause of cause of human suffering to be “ignorance.” A fundamental doctrine of Buddhism is karma, which is a law of moral causation. Any kind of intentional, volitional action — thought, word, or deed — is regarded as karma. It is karma that leads to saṃsara and necessitates the need for nirvana, according to The Gospel Coalition.
Meditation is a major component of the spiritual practice of Buddhism. The SokukoJi Buddhist Temple Monastery has a meditation room where the 17 monks who live in one of 10 houses near it meditate, some for as many as six to eight hours each day.
John GrapThese are cenes inside SokukoJi Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle CreekDuring February, the monks and Sokuzan devote themselves exclusively to meditation, says Unyo Priscilla Brown, Sokuzan’s partner and an ordained Monk. They meditate every day for eight hours.
“The idea is to not believe in Buddhism but to train your mind to see that meditation teaches you over time to see through judgments and preconceptions. This kind of mediation helps you to see that the ego is not real and the ego is empty of self and empty of other consciousness. If you can help a person with that practice, it helps clarify that,” Sokuzan says.

Thanks to the encouragement of a student, Sokuzan is also the author of "Sixty Second Sokuzan: Fifty-two, one-minute Zen Buddhist teachings to consider" available on Amazon.

Karma House and soon Mindfulness Center serve community
The Community Mindfulness Center will be dedicated to the practice of meditation, which is currently offered at Karma House and the Monastery.
John GrapSokuzan, founding abbot of SokukoJi Buddhist Temple Monastery, stands in front of photos of his teachers, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, left, and Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi.Sokuzan says it’s often difficult for people to realize a spiritual-based pathway where no one is being worshipped and there is no proselytizing.
The monastery's focus includes community outreach. Two of the Monks engage in outreach to those incarcerated at state and federal prisons, as well as with students from area schools at Willard Public Library. Sokuzan offers a virtual platform for students in South Africa. Europe, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Sokuzan also has a regular Zoom community that meets several times a week and he gives two talks each week to people representing all ages and backgrounds.

“I spent many years teaching in prisons and to people in rehab focused on how to work with your mind in a sane, uplifted, skillful way that does not make matters worse,” he says.
Bringing his teachings and beliefs home
Sokuzan was born in a home on Harrison Street and grew up in Battle Creek. His parents worked for Kellogg’s, now Kellanova. His grandmother was a born-again Christian and while this influenced him, he says he never thought of himself as being Christian.
After graduating from Battle Creek Central High School he joined the Marine Corps in 1959 at 18. This was where his study of Buddhism began. He happened upon a fellow Marine stationed with him in Barstow, California., who was reading a book titled “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.".
“He was sitting on a blanket reading this book and told me I should read it,” Sokuzan says.
At the time, he had no idea what the book was talking about. His curiosity got the better of him and he began reading books on psychology and the works of authors like Martin Buber, an Austrian-Israeli philosopher, and Soren Kirkegaard, a Danish philosopher.
John GrapShodo sits while offering prayers for the sick and suffering at the Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle Creek."There wasn’t any place to study about Buddhism and there weren’t a lot of books on it in the 1960s,” Sokuzan says.
He found what he could and continued to study after leaving the Marines in 1963, enrolling at the University of Chicago and studying art at the Art Institute of Chicago. After realizing that academics weren’t for him, he returned to Battle Creek. Then he and his then-girlfriend moved to Arlington, Virginia, where he held various jobs.
The couple, who were married by this time, returned to Battle Creek a few years later where he took a job with Eaton Corp while continuing to study art, Buddhism, and other forms of religion and psychology. The two divorced 10 years later in 1976 and share four children who now live throughout the United States.
“I was a union steward at Eaton back in the 1970s,” Sokuzan says.
In 1973, he traveled to Boulder, Colorado to study under a Buddhist teacher there. When he returned to Battle Creek, he formed a Dharma study group. In Buddhism, dharma is the doctrine, the universal truth common to all individuals at all times, proclaimed by the Buddha.
John GrapSokuzan, founding abbot of SokukoJi Buddhist Temple Monastery, stands in front of photos of his teachers, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, left, and Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi.“Sometimes I had anywhere from six to 12 people doing all-day meditation retreats once a month,” Sokuzan says of the teaching he began doing.
The group met inside a building at 133 W. Michigan Avenue that he rented for $50 a month. About 15 years ago he began exclusively teaching Dharma. Some of the students he had from the very beginning continued to study with him.
After being laid off in 1980 from his job with Eaton, he opened a sign shop in Battle Creek. When he closed that business, he moved to Minnesota where he spent 10 years as a Meditation teacher.
“I tried to move away, but this is where I was meant to be,” he says of his hometown.
Of his studies and teaching, he says, “It just started happening and I didn’t get in its way. There were no monks and no monastery. When I became an ordained Monk in 2007 I had a meditation group that met in a studio apartment.”
This is the seed that grew the Monastery, Karma House, and the future Mindfulness Center, all of which are being carefully tended by some 17 monks — 14 who are ordained — who live in one of 10 homes in close proximity. The homes are all owned by the Monastery.
John GrapThese are scenes inside SokukoJi Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle Creek.Some of the monks have jobs and are employed by local businesses like Umami Ramen and Horrocks, one works in insurance, another is an attorney, and others work remotely in computer technology. Sokuzan says they each pay tuition to study and take classes at the Monastery. In addition, he has a sizable number of students throughout the world who engage with him through a virtual format.
One monk also spends about nine months in Battle Creek and the remainder of the year in Minneapolis.
Monks are not required to be celibate and Sokuzan says he’d like to have more families as part of the Monastery.
To accommodate children, he says he wants to build a school using Buddhist teachings as the foundation.
“My vision for this place is to have a school with a different view of education to train people, not test them. This is a terrible disservice, terrible disservice, to these poor little people who should be encouraged to think when they need to,” he says.
Within this type of educational setting, children would come to learn the basics such as mathematics and spelling at their own pace under the guidance of teacher monks.
John GrapStatatues of the Buddha inside and outside the SokukoJi Buddhist Temple Monastery in Battle Creek."All kinds of things could be taught like how to write out of the left side of the brain. The right side doesn’t think, it just receives. We could teach them how to open their Eye Mind so that they could go into an art museum and see what’s painted instead of what they think is painted. This puts evaluation and the judgment process in the backseat.” 
Receiving what’s in front of you without judgment is one of Sokuzan’s oft-repeated phrases.
“When you receive all things it won’t come out of ego or action. It will be based out of equanimity, and you see all people for who they are, not who you think they are,” Sokuzan says. “It’s about consciousness, not who’s right or who’s wrong. You understand the intention to be with all things and you’re not going to be hindered by lack of feedback or credentials.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.